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Army is accepting more low-quality recruits, giving waivers for marijuana to hit targets

U.S. Army recruits practice patrol tactics while marching during U.S. Army basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Shawn Weismiller/Released)

Faced with increasing demand for new soldiers, the Army has reached deeper into the pool of marginally qualified recruits, offered hundreds of millions in bonuses and relaxed the process for granting waivers for marijuana use.

The Army will reach its goal of 80,000 new soldiers without compromising quality, predicted Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, who leads its recruiting command. The need for new soldiers comes as Congress has reversed trends begun in the Obama administration to downsize the military. An additional headwind for recruiting in all the service branches: a growing economy where civilian jobs, not joining the military, attract young people.

“It’s in an environment where unemployment is 4.5%,” Snow said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

So long as the Army, the largest of the armed services, continues to tinker at the margins by accepting a small number of recruits with lower qualifications, the Army won’t encounter the problems it did in the mid-2000s, said Beth Asch, an expert on military recruiting at the non-profit RAND Corp.

In 2005, as long, hazardous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan became common, the Pentagon relaxed standards for recruits who had fared poorly on standard military exams. Those who scored in the lower third of the tests, so called Category Four recruits, had been limited to 2% of new troops. The standard was relaxed to 4% and was exceeded at times.

The hazard of accepting recruits with poor qualifications was highlighted by a case from 2006 in which an Iraqi girl was raped and her family killed by soldiers, one of whom required waivers for minor criminal activity and poor educational background to join the Army.

Smarter soldiers, RAND has found historically, are better fighters. One study showed that tank crew members were less effective in destroying the enemy than recruits who had scored higher on military tests.

In the last fiscal year, 2017, the active-duty Army’s recruited nearly 69,000 soldiers, and 1.9% belonged to Category Four. That’s up from .6% in 2016. The lowest figure in recent years was in 2013 when it dipped to .2% Recruiting was easier several years ago, Asch noted, when the economy was still recovering from the deep recession.

The Pentagon mandates that the services accept no more than 4% of recruiting classes from Category Four.

The Army needs a steady flow of recruits throughout the year to fill spots in basic and advanced training courses. Accepting more recruits from Category Four in the winter and spring — its toughest months for recruiting — kept those seats full, Snow said.

“We made a conscious decision to bring in some more Category 4 soldiers during the months that it is most difficult for us to meet the training seat requirement,” Snow said.

Forgiving past marijuana use

Granting the services more flexibility in accepting recruits on the margins, or some who have admitted smoking marijuana, can save money on bonuses without affecting the military’s ability to fight, Asch said.

“The services do have some flexibility,” she said. “That’s actually a good thing.”

Bonuses don’t come cheap. Last year, the Army spent $424 million on them for recruits. That’s up from $284 million in fiscal year 2016, and dwarfs the $8.2 million paid out in 2014.

Granting more waivers to recruits who admitted to smoking marijuana — drug use is prohibited in the military — reflects its legal status in several states, Snow said. Prospective soldiers must vow not to use again.

Previously, a two-star officer like Snow had to grant the waiver. Now, he said, that authority has been delegated to the level of a lieutenant colonel. The change was made for fiscal year 2017 when 506 waivers were granted. In 2016, there were 191 waivers.

“The big thing we’re looking for is a pattern of misconduct where they’re going to have a problem with authority,” Snow said. “Smoking marijuana in an isolated incident as a teenager is not a pattern of misconduct.”


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